I have a confession to make. I never
thought I'd be able to pull Damocles
off. I started optimistically enough, fumbling forward as I always do at the
beginning of a book. I thought it would be cool to examine how people could
build a language with no common ground. I was curious to explore the impact the
news of having extraterrestrial ancestors would have on humans. And I looked
forward to playing my favorite writing game--What if? What if you changed this
or that about humanity? In this case, put it on a planet with no night or
darkness. How would that change things?
By alternating the points of view in
the story between Meg, the Earth linguist responsible for bridging the language
gap, and Loul, the Dideto everyman whose natural curiosity propels him into the
center of the encounter, I found myself happily wrestling with the question
that I’ve asked in every alien encounter story.
What do we look like to them?
Then the questions came fast and
furious. For those of us who grew up on stories in which aliens are tall, pale,
wet-eyed creatures--what if that’s who we are to them?
With basic humanoid similarities out
of the way (we have a common ancestor, after all) how fluid are we in our
understanding of what makes us human?
On a planet with no night, how would
sleep evolve? If at all? And how would that affect society? How much of our
understanding of life in general is based on the need to take shelter from
predators in the dark? How many great thoughts have come to us as we lie on our
backs staring at the stars? How many voyages have been navigated by those
stars? What if we couldn't see them?
What surprised me as the story
unfolded was that the scale of it didn't get larger; it got smaller. Bridging
this enormous gap between these branches of humanity didn't involve the big
questions--religion, power, death; it came down to the smallest things--touch,
laughter, trust. At one point in the story, Meg says that communication always
comes back to the little words--to, for, with. The differences between doing
something TO someone and doing it FOR someone or WITH someone can't be overstated.
And so the epic encounter in Damocles
comes down to gestures and errors and yearning. It comes down to one Earther
and one Dideto who see in each other the desire to communicate, the hunger to
understand, and the compassion to be patient.